A boost for tourism | Sunday Observer

A boost for tourism

Aeroflot Airbus
Aeroflot Airbus

Tourist arrivals have increased sharply since the end of the war in 2009 and Sri Lanka is well on its way to attract 2.5 million tourists per year. But, there are several factors that help drive these figures up or down. The friendliness of the people and the incredible diversity of the country are two plus points. But for more tourists to come, there should be two or three other requirements.

The first is a more welcoming entry process. Sri Lanka has an E-Travel Authorization process, a sort of online visa that should be obtained by citizens of all countries, other than the Maldives and Singapore, which have traditionally granted on-arrival visas to Sri Lankans. The Government however is reported to be mulling easing some of the visa restrictions and requirements in order to make Sri Lanka a more welcoming destination.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has appointed a Task Force to study the possibility of granting visa free entry to visitors from certain tourist friendly nations in order to boost arrivals. Tourism Minister John Amaratunga said, some of the countries under consideration are India, China and some European and West Asian countries. Amaratunga has said this proposal was aimed at encouraging more people to visit Sri Lanka and avoid the “chaos” at immigration counters. Following recommendations from the Task Force, this proposal may be implemented in the off peak months of October to November and March to April. He further said, the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau (SLTPB) is currently working on this plan. However, this must be a two-way street. If Sri Lanka grants passport-only entry to another country, we should rightly expect that country to extend the same courtesy to Sri Lankan citizens, the same way Singapore and the Maldives do.

But this is not enough. Air ticket prices to and from Sri Lanka have become high compared to tickets originating from other regional destinations thanks to a plethora of taxes. The Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) is undergoing a massive expansion plan and needs funds for construction work. This is generally the purpose of having a Port and Airport Development Levy, a common practice among many nations. But, at just over Rs.8,000, the Embarkation Tax or Airport Tax at the BIA is somewhat high – most countries charge less than Rs.4,000 in rupee terms. Hence, air tickets to and from Sri Lanka are now relatively expensive compared to tickets to some of the well known regional destinations. If these taxes can be lowered, more travellers could be enticed to Colombo. It will also benefit Sri Lankans travelling abroad for employment, education, MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions) and leisure. The greater numbers of travellers will make up for any perceived losses.

But that is not the only fee that can be reduced. All airports charge a landing fee from airlines, in addition to fuel charges and a few other charges. Colombo has gained an unenviable reputation as an airport with high landing fees, which may have discouraged several airlines considering flying into Colombo.

High fuel prices are already hurting many airlines and adding high landing fees, on top of that expense could be too much to handle for some airlines.

The good news is that the authorities are reviewing how to reduce airport fees to make the country more competitive with the rest of Asia and make it more attractive to tourists and other travellers. The problem is that the excessive airport fees are being passed on to passengers who purchase airline tickets to Sri Lanka, making the country less attractive for potential tourists. If a return ticket to Sri Lanka is US$ 700 while a return ticket to another regional destination is US$ 500, we can guess where a tourist’s money will go. The authorities should study the airport fee structures in other countries in the region and formulate a more competitive fee structure. Yes, these cannot remain static as costs go up in some spheres, but it should not be too high either. In another development, the Government is also mulling refunding VAT on purchases made by tourists, which is also a common practice in many countries. This will encourage tourists to buy more locally-available products.

The other problem is the projected shortage of airline seats into Colombo, given the Government’s plans to bring in 2.5 million tourists. Prior to 1983, most of the world’s leading airlines flew into Colombo, but the majority withdrew citing security concerns amidst a sharp drop in tourism. Now, only about 35 airlines (including SriLankan) operate flights to Colombo, including charter flights and seasonal scheduled flights. We must attract more airlines to Colombo (and perhaps Mattala) to meet the goal of 2.5 million tourists in the short term.

Fortunately, more airlines are coming forward to operate flights to Colombo. The Russian airline Aeroflot has just announced that it would be flying into Colombo from Moscow five times a week using Airbus A330 planes from October 28 this year. Aeroflot, which means “Air Fleet”, is the fourth oldest airline in the world. The nine-hour flights will encourage inbound tourism from Russia to Sri Lanka. The Aeroflot flights will be a major boost for tourism and business travel to the island and will also obviate the need for transit in a third country such as the UAE.

Among the other airlines planning to launch regular services to Sri Lanka in the next two-three months are Edelweiss (Switzerland), Thomas Cook (UK) and Vistara (India). IndiGo of India also launched flights to Colombo recently. Also waiting in the wings are Biman Bangladesh, Royal Nepal Airlines, Lion Air (Indonesia) and several other airlines. All these extra flights will boost tourism and other inbound travel. Sri Lanka must also make use of existing and new bilateral air services agreements (some of which have not been properly utilized) to get more airlines into Colombo.

There is a bit of a crunch for slots at the BIA, Colombo, not necessarily in terms of landing and take-off, but for other ancillary services such as, passenger processing, baggage clearing and immigration.

The airport was built to handle 6 million passengers a year, but exceeded 9 million some time back.

Hence the crunch. But the airline will be able to accommodate many more airlines and passengers when the expansion is completed sometime in 2020. This will also be an impetus for the airport to attract more airlines.

BIA representatives should attend “route shops” where international airlines look for new routes and market Colombo as a great destination.

There should be a more pro-active effort to get more airlines to fly into Sri Lanka to boost tourism.